Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Patagonia XI: Up the Guanaco


Alone, I went to climb the modest, but yet decent, Cerro Guanaco, some 900 meters above sea level. Interestingly, coming down from the mountain, I had different plans than those when I first started the climb. Stay tuned!

Solo again.
The morning of the 11th brought with it a challenge, a fulfillment to be completed – climbing the notorious Guanaco, the mountain that Lee would never forget, the one that came into her stories here and then. Curious and longing to be at the places that Lee described and detailed, to grip the difficulties (well, at least some of them – I was in the high season, hence no snow for me!).
I arranged myself as fast as possible in order to climb early and try to avoid getting into the mid afternoon, when usually the weather deteriorates and rain starts to fall down. I also knew that a group of Israelis from my hostel are gonna do the climb that same day, and I wanted peace and quite, and to be with nature alone as possible. I knew that groups usually takes times to rearrange and get on with it, so I hurried to get out of the hostel and on the way ASAP.
I went outside and down the hill to the main road of Ushuaia, where I found the minibus of the daily National Park's transportation waiting for their departure time: 9 am. With no choice, I waited with them, tried to converse the best I could with my basic Spanish. When the clock hit the 20 minute of 9, we went on our way toward the park. In the vehicle were also two British folks and one Australian lady, all over the age of 50, which I talked and had a very nice conversation – of course, the issue was mainly about the Israli problem, especially with the Irish context in mind. Me and the Australian lady took off near the start of the path around Rio Lapataia and Lago Roca, that also lead to the Guanaco trail. We walked at that quiet beach, nobody around, stillness of the lake and the cold fresh air were a good reminder of what is so good about nature, especially when far away from civilization. After a 10 minutes walk, we came to a split in the trail, straight lead the path that continued on to circle the lake and the right path lead toward the Guanaco ascent, 4 hours of climb as written on a small wood post…We said goodbye, I looked at the watch (10:10) and started the ascent.
At first, of course, the path was flat and easy, going through the thick forest with immense trees and vegetation in abundance on both sides of the path. It was very cold there, the sun hid behind the clouds and I prayed it won't rain on me, now that I am starting the climb. The path, as well as the vegetation, was quite wet from yesterday's rain, and it made the advance a bit more difficult, as I had to watch out not to slip.
Quickly I came to the first of the "Yellow Posts", those with the km' written on it – this was the first one, with the single number "5" written with black ink – not far from that post, the ground pitched up, and the climb started.
The climb was not easy, though I kept a fast pace as possible, the path muddy and slippery. I used all my limbs to keep on the path and to hang on the sturdy trees that grew from the side of the mountain, their roots bulging out of the ground and making a decent foot hold. From time to time, I was able to get a sense of my progress, as Lago Roca and the surrounding mountains peep in between the branches of the trees. Along the way up I was keep thinking, how the hell Lee and her companions managed to climb this steep mountains with ice and snow all along with no equipment…? I was amazed!
Anyway, not too long after starting the climb, I came to the first "break" in the slope, a kind of a clearing which on the one side overlooked Lago Roca and the Chilean mountain side of Tierra del Fuego, and on the other side, a glimpse of a far, off to the left, jutting peak. The path continued on into the forest, and I followed it. It didn't take too long and the path turned into a muddy and messy blackish path, making efforts not to sink into the mud, remembering the small holes in the sides of the hiking boots. Luckily, I managed to get out of the forest into a new clearing, which I quickly realized was a mountain saddle, the great ridge of the Guanaco rise in front of me. It was a wide, some 200 meters of pampas totally soaked with water from yesterday's heavy rainfall. Here I realized quite quickly that I am going to wet my shoes and socks unless I am gonna hover with god knows what machine…and damn did I wet my socks – By the time I reached the rocky and arid sloping ridge of the Guanaco, water were squishing out of my boots like I put my feet in a swimming pool.
Looking up, I could see the path, narrow and snaking up the side of the ridge and the only thing going through my mind was, how the hell Lee and her companion managed to ascent this quite steep slope without any ice equipment, and more over, how they managed to come down??
Anyway, thoughts aside, I started my way up – at first it started easy, but soon the slope steepened and the going was harder. The wind whipped without remorse and the peak was far-far away…The scenery, however, was superb all along, with visibility all the way to Navarino Island and it's wild mountains. Finally, after quite of an effort, I reached the top of the mountain, which few people were already there, enjoying the scenery…
And what a scenery! The panorama included the eastern parts of Tierra del Fuego (Chile), along Lago Roca back to the Beagle channel and Navarino Island, and toward west as far as the eye could see…Ushuaia was seen as a little town "stooping" over the shores of the wide channel, it's little airstrips stretching and waiting for planes to land…The weather wasn't that good, though, and I was in a constant fear of raining. From that scouting point I managed to spot most of the way I did with Maya and Barak couple of days before (route #2).
I quite quickly noticed that there is another peak, a bit lower but not far – just across a mountain saddle. I decided I would venture and check it out, sensing that I would have a better view as this peak concealed part of the scenery from the main peak.
Less than ten minutes later and I found out it was a wise decision with a bit better panorama over the area, especially toward west. I sat on that peak and had my decent breakfast, a bit of water and enjoying the scene, and especially the rain that poured just south of the peak, but luckily, the cloud continued west, leaving us dry. After 50 minutes, I decided it's time to go back, before any shower will hit the peak also.
I packed my little stuff, shouldered my backpack and was on the move back down.
Going down, as it tends to be, felt very fast and on my down I saw the Israeli group I knew that I would meet on the way somewhere. Kfir was there too, and for the first time the guy was actually admiring the scene! And there, at the point between crossing the pampa and the wood, the turn point of my journey happened.
While I was doing my way across the pampa trying not to get too much water into my shoes, I was pondering and longing for my mother's food, as well as the faces of my family, friends, everyone I knew back home…this phenomenon is called, how absurd if you think about it deeply, Home Sickness…Damn, plain and simple, Home Sickness!
And my "other" me said outloud in my head, "Well, if you really want to go back, you can – nothing stops ya!" and "me" answered back, "shucks, I paid 50 USD for the change of ticket only to change the ticket flight date to almost the same time?!" and the "other" answered, wisely: "Well, it's only 50 USD, and believe me, it's better save the rest of your time and money to have fun in Israel and not do things only because of these miserable 50 USD…". And the coin fell and the bell rang in my head so loudly, that I started laughing…laughing and smiling because I was coming home! What a wonderful feeling and joy, Yep, I am going back home! Had enough, it's time to get back to the world I left 9 and a half months ago…
By the time I was back down and near the starting point, I already had a plan – a plan I decided that I won't be sharing with those that are back in Israel…oh no, this will be a surprise! Everyone thinks I am gonna be back in Israel around the end of March, while I am planning to come quite sooner than that…
When I came down, the weather cleared and the day was sunny and shiny, like God was smiling with me and everything was sooo cool! I got into the little restaurant that was located at the entrance and near the minibus pickup point, and had a good cup of coffee and some alfajores as I was starving (I didn't take any food with me…). As I was sitting and savoring the coffee and enjoying the vista outside the large windows I’ve noticed one of the micro taxies getting inside the restaurant. As I knew the micros coming and going to this attraction might be scarce, I’ve got up an asked him when he leaves.
“NOW!” he blurted as he took an alfajores and went back to the exit door. I hurried to pay the bill and went outside only to find the nice Australian lady I’ve talked with that morning, waiting all grumpy and pissed off. Seems she was waiting for this taxi for several hours (!).
Soon, I was back at the hostel and before I made several steps into the lobby I already noticed that my room’s door was wide open. And who came outside? Sivan, of course. Noticing me, she cried out, all smiling and jumping all over me…
After several explanations I managed to persuade her to let me put my things in the room. Sivan, in her typical quick and intensive talk, shared with me some of the experience she and the girls had since I last saw them at El Bolson.
After a quick shower and lunch (thanks Rami and Ricky!) I’ve walked with Sivan back to her hostel, as she wanted to say goodbye to some friends that were leaving to Buenos.
Getting to the hostel, I was surprised to find Alon (Cordoba) sipping tea and having Alfajores, all smiling, as he usually does. He told me about their trek around Torres Del Paine (the circuit route) and the people they met at that trek. At some point our conversation came to an end and Sivan came back.
Walking down the streets of Ushuaia, Sivan shared the told me that when the girls were at El Calafate they met with the Adar couple (see Pucon Chronicles) and it seems Adar (boy) told Efrat and Ravid he prefers that Sivan would not be coming to a party he was invited to. Ravid kept this secret from Sivan up until they were suppose to go to the Torres trek with Adar’s couple, at which they felt obliged to update Sivan on Adar’s thoughts. Sivan by of course was hurt, and led to a fight between the girls, which led to Sivan not joining the full trek…
The evening before my 48 hours bus ride to Buenos I’ve met with Valy, which just came from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia. He shared with me all his experiences and the fact that his knee was in a bad shape and that he will need to cut short all his plans to do a serious trek in the area of Ushuaia (quite a shame…). I was tottaly tired and went to my room to get some sleep before the departure to Buenos, 6 am on the 13th of January 2006.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Patagonia X: Chronicles from the tip of South America


My time in Ushuaia was a time of exhilarating decisions, experiences and vistas: from the easy-going trail along Ensenada bay, through the golden sunrise over Ushuaia bay to the windswept peak of Cerro Guanaco that overlooks the Beagle Channel. Or, as one local restaurant promoted on a napkin: “Enjoy yourself, it’s the end of the world.”

Ok, I am here but how the hell I am getting outa’ here in the next month!?
I think that the biggest joke one can tell about Ushuaia at peak season is the ironic phenomenon that the first thing a new comer do after he dumps his stuff in the hostel’s room is to look for a flight ticket out of Ushuaia. Yeah, it is crowded, highly touristy and damn, all flights till the end of February are fully booked!
Some of you folks already know that I am no laid-back boy, and the morning following our arrival I already woke up early and ventured down to the town’s front, the sun just picked up speed and was in the first quarter of the sky, illuminating little Ushuaia with a warm and strong morning light. The sign of “USHUAIA, end of the world, beginning of everything” was welcoming as I walked along the front waterline, examining the merchant’s freights that docked at harbor, the water of the Beagle channel glistening in the morning light. The air was fresh.
When I returned to Violleta de la Montana, Barak and Maya just woke up and together we ventured into town looking for a reading book for Maya, and eventually buying one for her and one for me (Shogun, by James Clavell). We also went through the Tourist Information and stamped our passport with the famous “End of the World” passport stamp and to arrange myself a ticket out of town…well, I knew it would be difficult, I just didn’t know to what extent.
I didn’t even thought about taking a plane out of Ushuaia, so while Barak and Maya checked the Argentinean airline, I went to the other side of the street and went inside a travel agency to check land transportation options. While I was waiting in line something like 20 minutes, two Israeli girls were just closing a ticket direct to Buenos Aires on the 12th (it was the 5th), telling me the bus has only one seat left and that I can book it for me. Optimistically, I finally sat down to talk with the representative, only to grip that there was such an option only on the 13th as this was a three-section ride and one section was fully booked for the 12th.
I had to take a bus to Rio Grande and there switch to another bus to Rio Gallegos from company A. From Rio Gallegos I would take a direct bus of Andesmar which will stop at town on the way and the seats will be changed and continue all the way to Buenos Aires. Even though it was a week ahead and it cost even more than a flight (!), I booked and paid over 100 USD…Unbelievable, and even more than that, what happened later…
Meeting Barak and Maya I was told from them that the line is long and tiring, and chances of changing their flight ticket to an earlier date (before the 10th) are slim. Well, I had a 48 hours of non-stop ride to Buenos Aires!
Setting aside transportations problems, we focused on the local attractions. We planned on visiting the penguin Island (nicked fondly “Penguinera”) and the near national park which I heard so much from Lee way back when we were walking in the alleys of Cusco (remember those days?!). The weather in Ushaia is quite crazy, with sunny day in the morning and a rainy afternoon sweeping well into the start of “evening” (which is still regarded by me as daylight). Darkness sets in only around 10 PM, and even then you can see strong stray of light from west that still linger way beyond midnight…end of the world or what?!

Cruising The Beagle Channel
As time was on our side, we didn’t have a problem chilling out in the hostel on our third day in Ushuaia (6th) planning on Saturday as penguin day.
Turns out, that Saturday was also a grey day, but as we had additional plans, we decided it is better to see penguins in grey/rainy weather than to get wet in the park (a decision which turned out to be quite a wise one). In the morning we checked the different tours that were offered and decided to go for the standard tour that included not only the penguin Island but also the famous light tower and the seal islands.
We went back to the hostel to prepare lunch and even though we took some extra time into our plans, we were back at the docks exactly on time after walking quite fast to get on time…
Our cruise company utilized a fancy Catamaran lined up with the rest of the tourist boats of other companies. The skies were overcastted and uninviting, and it immediately reminded me of the tour to Bellastas Island in Southern Peru (see September chapters). Even so, I got into the Catamaran with Barak and Maya hoping for the best.
Inside, luxury was bouncing from every centimeter – wall-to-wall deep blue soft carpets, several Plasma screens on the walls showed the highlights of the cruise, hi fidelity sound system, deep cushioned face-to-face benches with appropriate tables, and splendid view out of the panoramic windows. The benches were already half occupied by many tourists, and I could imagine the commotion at the sights of attraction, when everyone will move forward for the photo-op.
As we sat there and talked a bit, we suddenly saw through the windows no other than Aviran and Shay walking down the pier past our cruise ship – will they come to this ship? We asked, and looking back toward the wide entrance to the saloon, we saw them enter, looking around to get their bearings. We waved to them and they smiled back and sat beside us, asking in sarcasm why we always chase them to all the places…Turned out that they split from the rest of the Israeli gang and found a nice place to sleep in. Short time after that, the ship left her dock and headed westward toward the opening gap of the Beagle Channel. The channel was calm and the boat gathered her 32 knots with ease. As I have the urge to shoot everything of interest, I poped out my SLR and went outside to the freezing wind, taking pictures of the busy port and of Ushuaia lying under the cloudy grey umbrella. I stayed there no more than couple of minutes before descending down, half frozen.
Our first destination was the Cormorant and Seal colony on top a couple of small Islands. As I already visited Bellastas Island, this part was less impressive for me, as I saw more than enough Cormorants and Seals there. It was in any case quite interesting and I snapped several shots, just for the sake of it. We continued with the cruise to the famous lighthouse, the Faro les Eclairenrs, which is situated at the middle of the channel on a football-field-size rocky Island. The ship half circled the Island and then continued on west, toward Penguinera Island. After two hours we finally approached the Island, coming from it’s southern-western part and heading toward it’s southern beach. On top the wind and the chill, everyone got out of the heated spoiling saloon to the front deck, as the Catamaran headed with idle engine toward the beach, numerous Penguins walk here and there, some watch the ship while others continue with their daily routine. Surprisingly, the Catamaran beached the Island with its front fuselage, while all the Penguins start to play and walk around the ship.
That was indeed, a unique experience, seeing such cute creatures, with their playful ecstasy walking and looking at the weird creatures that came from the sea with speed and will go back again in 10 minutes. Many swam in the water beside the ship and the commotion on the beach was big. Deeper into the exposed Island you could see the Penguins commune together and in some way it reminded me of our race, that some are indifferent to new visitors, and some dare and play with the unknown.
After ten minutes the vessel backed up toward the channel and everyone went back into the saloon to warm up with a cup of coffee/tea. On our long way back (some 3 hours of direct course back to Ushuaia) we saw a sail boat that was on it’s way to Antarctica but most of the time we were more involved in conversation, similar to most people on the boat.
Getting back to Ushuauia, we parted from Aviran and Shiri, and headed back to the hostel for some home made Ravioli we purchased from a little take-away restaurant. It didn’t take too much time for us to fall asleep afterwards.

Bahia Ensenada – blue as blue can get!
The morning of the 8th of January was very beautiful, with clear skies, which were perfect for a “walk in the park”, as one can say…We made some phone calls to hostels in Buenos Aires in order to reserve places for Barak and Maya that were expected to land on the 11th of January in the capital. Finishing this, we quickly arranged ourselves and left to the main street to catch the micro to the park. Fifteen minutes later, we entered the park’s perimeter and were dropped off at a junction that leads toward Bahia Ensenada.
The air was crisp and we were in good spirits as we walked down to the trail head at the little bay, which it’s waters were tranquil and partially reflected the wild blue skies on it’s surface. We could see the distant wild mountains on Island de Navarino, Chile, and not too many people were around. The perfect day!
We started walking along the path, that introduced us from the start into part of the forest, thick with bushes and old trees, all green and fresh. Alas, five minutes into the trail and I felt my lower intestines crying in a diarrhea alarm fashion and I gripped immediately that the pasta I ate last night must have been too loaded with oil…Stopping and searching my backpack I immediately gripped that I was “truly lucky” to forget my toilet paper in the hostel. Crap (up to your throat!)!
I stopped Maya and Barak and explained my, ha, delicate situation (somehow I always have those anal problems…). Lucky for me, Maya popped up a half roll of toilet paper, and before she knew it, I was already running like a madman into the bush, feeling that in any split second the truck will unload it’s cargo (and, damn, it was a close one!).
Soon we were on the move again, passing by quiet pieces of heaven, with no one around, but the blue sky and the wild mountain in the background. The tranquil waters splashed tenderly on shore and the behind us everything was green and lush.
At a certain point, I got occupied with my photo taking agenda, and suddenly I noticed that I was alone on the path. Barak? Maya? Silence…Well, I guessed they continued on forward, but as I walked briskly and still didn’t see them, I suddenly started to think that maybe they actually went back to look for me, missing me and that they are actually behind me…What should I do? My inner logic told me to continue to the end of the trail and wait for them there. But, as time passed and I gained the distance through the thick forest, going up and down, I still was not sure about that…Where are they? I started to ask people but no one saw any of the mention characteristics, not does that passed me on my direction and not those that came on the other direction. I decided to stop and wait something like half an hour and see what happens, but except for getting more anxious, nothing changed. Finally I decided to continue on, hoping that nothing serious happened to them and that they will look for me at the end of the trail. I left a note on one of the trail posts in Hebrew, hoping that it won’t fly away, and that it would tell Barak and Maya where I am if they were walking behind me. As I was continuing on forward, I saw two Americans walking in the opposite direction and asked them if they saw a couple with the appropriate characteristics of the their clothing and appearance. Surprisingly, they told me they indeed saw a couple sitting near a little bay some 10 minutes walk from where we were. After I doubled checked it with them, I asked them to take the note I left on the post and throw it away. They happily agreed and I thanked them. Optimistic, I went continuing plowing forward till I indeed saw Maya and Barak soaking up the sun near the shellfish rich sunny beach in front of wild windswept mountains scenery.
Barak greeted me, telling me something about how easy it is to bounce the rocks on the water surface, but I felt something was wrong and the tension in the air. Maya didn’t talk. Talking with them, and specifically with Maya, I felt that something was wrong but on the other hand, I felt that something is still wrong. Mistakenly, I thought it was because of me and our separation event, and as a consequence, I got into an argument with Maya, feeling that she is not honest with me and at the end, we continued on, I am fuming with myself and putting high pace and opening a gap so I would be alone. At the end I had nothing to do with the tension that I felt at that time.
I waited for them at the end of the trail and after clarifying ourselves, things got back to what they were and we caught a micro back to town. It was already late, and the hunger started to annoy us.

Wild sunrise and Martial Glacier
As an enthusiastic photographer, I decided that I have to take a picture of the sunrise at the end of the world – it's gotta be something special! And damn, it was!
I will remind you, folks, that unlike the northern hemisphere, at that time the night period was the shortest, and the sun rose already at 5 am (!). So, when the buzzer went on on the morning of the 9th , I woke up and rearranged to the upcoming series of sunrise shots while Maya and Barak were in deep-deep sleep. I took my camera, and went outside to the bloody cold morning.
The sight was mesmerizing – a glow of yellowish-golden penetrated between the low hanging clouds over the Beagle Channel and spread a golden cast over the quiet waters of the channel and the harboring yachts. I sped to find a good location to catch that amazing moment before the sun will completely be hidden behind the clouds. After I "took the shot", I strolled down to the main way that ran along the waterline, amazed by the beauty of this golden moment (literally). I was quite alone, except for a woman that strolled also and watched the seagulls squeaking and the seals playing with the nearby stream flow. It was so peaceful and quiet that I felt for a moment that I am died and went to heaven…amazing place!
When I came back to the hostel, it was only close to 6 am, so the place was still dead quiet. I took the opportunity to arrange myself (cup of coffee, internet) and also have a modest breakfast with Gizeralda, the cutest tourist information girl I have met yet…she speaks Hebrew quite fluently, to your amazment (and my own) and she knows the Israeli quite well as the owners are good friends of hers (and still, don’t forget Ushuaia is a small place, everyone knows everybody).
While I was talking with Gizeralda, Barak and Maya woke up and prepared themselves some breakfast and we hurried to catch a taxi that will take us to the Martial Glacier.
Time was running out on Maya and Barak, so with little time left (2 days or so), we decided that we gonna visit the not-too-spectacular Martial Glacier, located several km north of Ushuaia. After seeing the great Perito Moreno, no glacier on the continent can really get near in shear magnitude so we were not expecting something amazing, and gone out more for the fun of getting out and do something with ourselves (how much times you think you can cross down town Ushuaia and not get bored??).
To get to the glacier you can either walk all the way up from the park entrance or take a cable car that saves some time and effort and from that ending point, continue on foot all the way to the glacier…
We took the cable car, of course…There is something scary about open cable cars, I am telling you but also exciting – on the one hand you are hanging on a strip of a steel some 15 meters above the ground, with only a bar that really hold you in the seat (and you better not let anything drop out of your hand!). The exciting thing is the fact that you feel like a bird, half floating in the air, the air blowing all around you and everything looks so CLOSE…!
After reaching the higher point with the cable car (where a little cabin served hot beverages and food – we will return to that) we started the walk toward the glacier, which was out of sight. The walk/climb was quite straightforward even though required some fitness, depending how much time you have to reach the goal…We puffed quite good, but at the end we saw some spectacular view of Ushuaia from a point close to the glacier itself. The valley that the taxi and then the cable car took us through framed Ushuaia and the Beagle channel, and the overcastted clouds dispersed a little to give some really nice sunshine…we enjoyed that beautiful sight for ten minutes, and then quickly went down back toward the cabin. Good thing we moved fast, as rain started pouring down and soon everyone were covered with GoreTex coats. Half soaking wet we entered the warm and stuffed cabin to find a place near the windows, having some nice tea. The weather cleared and we continued on taking a taxi back to town and looking around in Ushuaia (again?!) helping Maya find an interesting book for the rest of their journey. We stopped for a cup of coffee and a cake only to get later stuck under a pergola of a chocolate store for ten freezing minutes as a massive downpour struck Ushuaia that lasted for couple of hours…Later, when Barak and me went to fetch some dinner we saw that the peaks around Ushuaia were covered with snow (!) that lasted several days after Maya and Barak left for Buenos Aires…
The next day I parted from Barak and Maya that boarded a flight to Buenos Aires that night and we were suppose to meet again in couple of days ahead…My eyes were now set on the modest peak of Cerro Guanaco...

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Patagonia IX: Going to the edge - Ushuaia

On the ferry crossing Magellan's strait (our bus is the yellow roofed one)


With time on our hand, I, Maya and Barak left Puerto Natales toward the edge of the continent, to Ushuaia.

Puento Arenas chapters – One hunt, One weird cemetery and One thing that went wrong…
The following morning of our return from the Torres del Paine trek, we already boarded the bus for Puento Arenas, Chile. Our final destination – Ushuaia! And we were not the only one with this idea on mind that you can guess by yourself!
With us boarded the bus half of the hostel (including Aviran and Shiri), and soon we were on our way again, going further south. The weather was most of the ride grey and cloudy but once we came to Puento Arenas, after 3 hours, the weather got clearer.
Once we came down, many advertising people rushed for us, offering hostels with varying prices. With all the mess and hassle, we manage to retrieve our bags and stuff, and also check the different pricing. I was very agitated to go to an agency and purchase tickets to Ushuaia, as I knew it is gonna be very hard to find a place on the first bus to Ushuaia (not too many buses go to Ushuaia, in contrast to the amount of travelers that journey to that little town). One “PR” managed to convince us to see her hostel, and while we followed her to the nearby car, I told her we need to buy tickets to the following morning bus to Ushuaia. “No problem, I will arrange the tickets in the phone, we have places”. After I was sure she knew what she was talking about, we all climbed the car and soon the car drove through the brightly shined streets of Puento Arenas, made of mostly small and old buildings, similar to the nearby town Puerto Natales. Puento Arenas is more of a passing-by town than an attraction by itself: aside from a tour to see penguins and sea lion colonies, you can only walk around town or go and shop at the nearby “Tax-free” shopping area.
After dropping our stuff in the room and signing in, we ventured into the city, looking for things to see. On the way, we passed close to the bus company (Pacheco) that we understand from the hostel owner that they will make a reservation for us in that bus company. Curious, we went inside and asked about any reservations for us. And there, there started all the rush and commotion for the tickets to Ushuaia.
No, no one reserved seats for you, said the representative and we started to get worried. We asked if they have place for the morning bus and they said its full. Damn! We asked if there are more companies, and they said there are, but at this time of day it will be VERY hard to find a vacant seat, not to mention 3…We rushed to find a telephone to call the hostel and to verify that the lady called and there were no seats. The senora told us that we don’t have to worry and that once the office will be open they will do the reservation – turned out that there are several bus agencies that book places in this bus company in advance and that the hostel routinely reserve several places for their guests. Even so, we were not settled and after verifying the street name of that agency, we made our way back to the streets using the map we got from the hostel. Not that it was so easy. Turns out, that the street that we found in the yellow pages was a street that was cut in the middle by no other than the municipal cemetery…While crossing it, we could not stop and observe this different cemetery orientation – have you seen in your life a cemetery which is built up to 6 floor niches?? Well, that’s exactly what we saw over there! I thought about getting back there and do some serious “shoot-out” but I could not resist the temptation of shooting the people that tended the flowers on the “graves”, the ladders that the people use to climb up to the grave…Really amazing and so unordinary…
We kept on looking for the continuous of the street, and didn’t find it…While we pondered between ourselves, a very nice lady stopped by and asked us if she can help (she even talked a bit of English!). After explaining her what we were looking for, she immediately popped her cellular gadget and offered to make the call. We were so overwhelemed by her offer that we immidiatley refused, feeling uncomfortable that the lady will spend TIME and MONEY on our time, but she waved our uncomfort easily and continued with a nice smile, saying it is really nothing and while dialing, asked us where are we from and etc. WOW! We were all impressed and overwhelmed and while we chatted with her she reached the agency and they told her that they changed address (REALLY?!) and she explained us more or less how to get there. We parted from her with warm words, still surprised from the generous help. Finally we found the agency on the other side of the street and with mixed feeling of anticipation and anxiety we got in. I had a bad feeling about the whole thing and soon we all realized we have a problem.
No, there is no reservation under your names, and No, we don’t have three vacant seats or even one for tomorrow morning bus to Ushuaia. Damn!
We got out of the agency, totally hopeless, as it dawned on us that we will have to waste another day in the town (which we didn’t want to stay in) only because we trusted a word of a foreigner…While walking back to the hostel and my fury was getting slightly out of control, I told Maya and Barak that Next time it wont happen. Oh, yes, NEXT TIME IT WON’T HAPPEN!
Coming back to the hostel after criss crossing the whole god damn city, we were both tired, disappointed and even felt like we were deliberately been fooled. Even though I did my best to keep my temper on a tight leash, it managed to slip and with my fumbaling Spanish I just felt that I am gonna explode. The lady of course explained us that they usually have reserved seats but the agency sold them out to other hostels and left them empty handed. At a certain point, she said she don’t want any trouble, and if we are not happy we can leave. We were all tempted to do so, but our logic told us that that wont get us to Usuaia. We had to find a solution! While we were sitting in their simple decorated living room, the lady and the PR girl tried to think about solutions: a car that will take us to another town and maybe take another taxi across the straight of Magellan to take another taxi…or to take a flight to Ushuaia, which was possible for a nominal fee of 150 USD…Desperate and tired of all this commotion, we realized we don’t have any choice but to spend another day in Punto Arenas…How bad THAT could be?? Maya and Barak wanted to exchange money and the two ladies offered us a ride to town, to a place we can exchange money with good currencies (I guess they felt quite bad about the whole incidence). We were surprised to see that the exchange booth was actually in the same office as one of the bus companies that also shuttle to Ushuaia. While Maya and Barak waited for their turn in the line, I met an Israeli that just bought a ticket for Puerto Natales and asked me several questions about hostelling there. On his way out he told me about a good Israeli place in Ushuaia called Violate de la Montana and he recommended it with warm words. The name dispersed into my mind, thinking that I have had enough of Israeli joints, good or bad. Without noticing, the two ladies were working their magic with the representative of the bus agency, and when Maya and Barak were ready, they told us that they might arrange for us a bus to the next morning. REALLY?!? I tried to control my joy, as I knew better than to lift my anticipation.
Amazingly, after 5 minutes they told us that we have it! YES!! They did it! We all embraced in the agency to the astonished gazes of the standing byers and we paid appropriately to hold the precious tickets! Ha, our spirit was so lifted and the ladies invited us to join them for “shopping” in the tax free mall, but as Maya was looking for a new book, we said we will look in town for book stores. While walking in the city we wondered to the center and modern part of the city, and even though we didn’t find any real book store that we could find an English paperback, we did see the city a bit, and also tried to book ourselves a place in Ushuaia. I still had a card of the “Antartica” hostel that Lee so recommended me, and after doing the call I realized the place was expensive and packed to the roof. We decided that we gonna find our places once we hit Ushuaia. The weather turned grey and we decided to try out the tax free zone, and with a taxi we got there in a five minutes ride. Rain started flowing down and we took shelter in one of the low level hanger size malls. Looking around we quickly realized that books is not exactly the main merchandise sold here and quickly we decided to get back to the hostel and prepare a meal. We bought some groceries in a supermarket (which had the stock but not the variety) and then took a taxi back to down town. Getting back to the hostel, Maya prepared her super Spaghetti with mixed sauce (and wine!) on the old but well kept stove. We were so tired from all that running that we went to sleep instantly…

The ride to the end of the world
When we came to the bus company’s office, we were not surprised to see Aviran, Shiri and the rest of the Israeli that were also heading toward Ushuaia. Some of them are a complete disgrace, some are lovely human beings. A bit after 8 am the bus departed and started its long journey, around 11 hours of ride, toward the island of Tierra del Fuego, The Land of Fire.
Beside me sat an adult of about 50 (if not more) and tried to start a conversation in Spanish, but to his surprise (I guess) I was not in a mood to talk, but rather to listen to music and being absorbed with the amazing scenery on that journey. I returned his answers with distinct impatience and he got the message and sank into his own thoughts. Don’t think that I felt good with this, I might have been more patient with him or at least, more subtle with the way I told him that. And the way was just splendid! The weather was clear with deep blue skies and distant overcastted clouds and close drifting isolated clouds that made the skies even more interesting. The Magellan’s scenery is quite similar to the Patagonian scenery, with flat or low-hill vast space with numerous little lakes and streams dotting it everywhere. After an hour we came to a stop in front of the Magellan’s strait crossing. As I boarded the bus I noticed several low buildings on both sides of the road, a wide space of water in front and that’s it. The Straits of Magellan’s. Here was the place where so many seamen lost their lives trying to find an alternative path to the far east and to the new Island that was rumored to lie east of China, The islands of Japan. Getting closer to waterfront, the road declined subtly toward the cold waters and sunk under them. This was Punta delgade, the main crossing place where ferries come and pick up trucks, private cars and busses that continue into the Tierra del Fuego, both for Chilean and Argentinean parts (or the other way around). And this was also the only land path that lead to Ushuaia.
Taking the camera with me and strolling around, I found this part a windswept place, with deep blue skies spiced up with fresh and cold air that felt like it was pure. It felt like the end of the world, no doubt about that.
The ferry came after 20 minutes and we went to the upper deck to enjoy the crossing and also the freezing wind and sight of seals playing with the ferry pass. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes for everyone to either squeeze into the captain’s cabin or to get down to the lower deck, which was a narrow enclosed sitting place which the Israelis turned it into a cacophonic hell, boasting that they filmed penguins in the area they were not suppose to walk on.
We boarded the bus once the ferry got close to shore, and no sooner than five minutes later, we were already zooming through Fuegian land, not too different from it’s neighboring lands of Patagonia and Magellan’s. Close to a little town named Cerro Sombrero (The Hat Mountain) the adult guy boarded down and started walking toward the green hills of the land, toward his home. I got sleepy numerous times on this drive and once Barak woke me up only for me to capture out of my sleep a Chilean Gaucho leads his sheep herd with his two loyal dogs. Was really cool.
The crossing into Argentina was consisting of a long wait for the Chilean to accept our bus and then followed a short crossing into Argentina. Ha, we were so glad to be back in Argentina! Suddenly everything is one-third in price and twice better! The ride in the Argentinean side was scenic and ever more diverse, with lakes, streams, the Atlantic ocean and forests of dead trees mingled with live one. It was a stunning ride, which kept us stick to the windows and only then I gripped that Ushuaia, whatever it has to offer, is only the start of this amazing piece of land, which was wild and rich with vegetation and wild mountain ranges. Finally, after almost 12 hours we came to Ushuaia, with mid afternoon light (at 7:30 PM!) and we saw the magnificent Beagle Channel, dotted with cargo freights and luxurious Antarctica liners and the distant mountains of Island Navarino. The bus soon was entering the southernmost city in the world, and stopped near a gas station. We were approached, as usual, by representatives but this time we were not taken too easily. First, we wanted to find the tourist information and hear what they have to say, and only THEN we will check other possibilities. It took us no time to find it, with all our stuff, and were surprised to find there a Hebrew-speaking Argentinean, a lovely girl that accidentally knows the Israeli place, Violleta de la Montana and gave us the phone number (though she should have done that according to the rules of the “house”). We called and found a place for us and it was the cheapest we heard of! Great! We took our stuff and walked some 7 blocks and up a long staircase till we finally reached the house, which was indeed full of Israelis, but also many foreigners. At first we got a room with another two guys but after talking with the very nice Seniora, she arranged us a cozier room to the next day. We were so thrilled to finally come to this amazing place, a place that Lee had so many good things to say about it, and also celebrated her birthday here (and what a place to celebrate!!). You wait and see…

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Patagonia VIII: New Year on the "W"

The Torres and us (Maya, Barak and me)


Regarded as one of the most beautiful treks in South America, Maya, Barak and me backpacked the famous "W" circuit in the Torres del Paine National Park, hauling ass under changing weather conditions and up and down the winding paths to see the famous Torres spikes, while experiencing a bad incident that ended well and a tough scale up boulders to see the back side of the Torres…It was hard going but with views that knocked us out of our feet and will stay burnt into our minds. Stay tuned…

Day 1 – from winding paths to freezing Torres (30/12/05)
It was six fifteen when we woke up and quickly we were ready with our deposit luggage and the well fitted backpacks, neatly organized and ready for some serious action. Following a simple breakfast, we deposited the luggage and waited patiently outside the hostel with the rest of the Israelis, among them Aviran, Shiri and Alon, that as usual, had a wide grin on his face no matter what. We talked about plans: Aviran and Shiri planned to do the "W", Alon was planning to circumvent and do the circuit with two other Israeli girls. Beside us a group of ten locals were standing, probably workers as I sensed according to their outfit, probing us and our weird language. We laughed, saying they are planning to do the circuit, and were "well prepared"…The simple bus came to a stop some 10 minutes late and the door swung open in a noisy "wush" sound, and the driver went down, opened the cargo bay and motioned for us to enter the backpacks inside. We all boarded the bus and sat comfortably as possible, as it was an old bus (not that it made any matter, as long it will take us to the park). Once everyone boarded the bus, the locals boarded the bus and we were off. On the way we pondered and guessed that these locals didn’t pay anything for this ride. Not that I cared too much, but soon it became a problem for several people that payed. As you can guess yourself, the bus filled quickly and packed full, and still wondered in the city streets, picking more and more backpackers until at a certain point there was no more place. The European fellas were asking the responsible girl that took the tickets why they don’t have places and she shook them off her somehow. Bottom line, they stand almost all the way to the park, and all of us gripped the cunning extent of Juan. Finally, the bus left Puerto Natales and made its way toward the outback north of town, while stopping for a short period for refreshments and more importantly, dropping off the workers. The bus went on, and finally the bus entered the park from its eastern main entrance, which enabled us all to see the Torres in front of us, tall and eminent above the close to lake Sarmiento. Upon arrival to the entrance, a park ranger boarded the bus and explained with rapid Spanish what are we to do and the limitations. Even though I didn’t have that good Spanish, I understand that the full circuit is closed and is not recommended to use as a recent avalanche blocked part of the path (we heard about this problem, but many Israelis decided they can make it…). We went down and after paying the 10,000 pesos for the entrance (around 20 USD) we went to wait for transportation. We could have started walking straightaway and not wait for the transit, but as it was an additional 7 km (around hour and a half of walking), we preferred to wait and pay the 1000 peso per person and be taken by car – we figured out we gonna have enough time and distance to walk…
So, while Maya and Barak organized for the trek, I went to buy tickets and then waited with the others till the transit came, after half an hour there. If I wouldn’t have bought the tickets before hand, I would have suggested that we leave and start the trek, as there were many people waiting for the transit, and the transit still didn’t came. As there were no numbers on the tickets, I already envisioned the pushing/pulling to board the transits as one can assume that all the backpackers were anxious to get on and start the trek!
And finally, two transits rushed down the road, dust-trailing them for hundreds of meters, and one could feel the instant commotion on sight of the bumping up and down vehicles. Before the cars backed into the place we were ready with our backpacks to rush and storm, if necessary, toward the sliding side door. People rushed toward the cars and went toward the close doors even before the car pulled to a complete stop, the drivers behind the wheel amused at the fuss around them. Each transit was equipped with a small trailer that was to accommodate for the numerous backpacks. Soon enough, after enough push and pulling (as expected) we were all cramped into the transit seats and rushing down again toward the park, passing the areas that a year ago a fire blazed and burnt a great deal of the park's wood and now there were only black naked statues of dead trees among the vivid green grass that grew beneath them. Life and death, side by side.
After 20 minutes of driving, we came finally to our stopping point, the Torres camping site. Going down the vehicle, we arranged ourselves to the walk and while doing so, we saw 4 Israelis (3 girls and one guy) sitting down and eating their lunch happily. We joked with them that this is a good way to take off some of the weight and then we continued on walking, knowing we are going to meet them again.
We passed beside the cabin and among the tents, and started the walk up a hill side: Maya, Barak, me, Shir, Aviran and a German lady that was with us in the transit and joined along till we find the head trail. We didn’t know, that after only 10 minutes we gonna come to a stop, as the little and narrow trail would disperse into nothingness in the midst of wild grass and low-growing bush. From the start, all of us were skeptical as that trail was to thin and a wide one, as expected of a VERY busy trail, one that leads thousands of visitor yearly, if not more. It is suppose to be a 6 feet wide path, not a one foot. Looking at the simple topo map we got from the rangers at the park entrance, we saw that we were suppose to cross a serious stream, and if we would continue on (like some of the backpackers around us plan to do) we would eventually have to cross this stream, something which might be impossible. After discussing together, we agreed to go back to the starting point and start the trek knowing that we are going on a good and solid path and not pushing our way on rough terrain. It took us another 10 minutes to find the path, and even as we did, we were not sure till we actually saw the signs that marked the right way to our destination – Campamento Torres. This was a thing that amazed us – how come there are no appropriate trails signs that would ease the trekkers to the right path (especially after leaving some 20 USD on the counter…).
The weather was grayish and a bit depressing, the heavy backpack still sitting nicely and comfortably on my back and shoulders, almost not feeling its weight. On our way we passed through the Hostel Las Torres, with its green grass and its front plaza with national flags flutter in the cold air. A guy was just aligning a blue-white flag to one of the polls, and I stopped short as I noticed it was no other than the flag of the State of Israel! We all stopped walking, standing there, and Shiri, part as part of an amusement, part of patriotism, saluted the flag as it went up the poll and fluttered jolly. The German girl was amused at our act of patriotism and we explained her that our flag is one of the most important symbols that we respect. We continued on walking, crossing the stream over a bridge and saw the start of the forking in the wide path that leads north, toward the rising valley, and west toward the great lake Nordenskjold. We took the north path, and starting doing our way slowly up the slope. Aviran made fast and constitutive pace and soon he was beyond our sight, and the four of us (Maya, Barak, me and Shiri) made slow progress, feeling the weight that strangled every step we made. Shiri is asthmatic, and had a rough time walking up even with our slow pace, breathing heavily and in need of lots of stops to take in some air. Maya had some hard time, walking with the heavy backpack. Me and Barak managed the slope well, as long as we kept the slow pace of the girls. Slowly, we gained altitude and saw the distant lake Nordenskjold's turquoise milky waters among forests with the snowy mountains in the background - even though it was overcastted and doll, the view was impressive and amazing, and we took advantage of the view to take in some more air and let the feet rest before we continue on up. Finally, at a certain point we reached the highest point of this ascent, where Aviran waited patiently with a grin on his face and a distant look. From here, life were easier, going down into the valley with the river roaring some fifty meters underneath us, a mixture of colors of pale blue and milky white. The opposite granite black cliff was partially wet from the foam of the roaring river and decorated with deep scars ranging million years to an era we would never fully grasp it. Soon, we happily saw the first camp, Campamento Chileno that was sitting on the opposite bank so once we crossed the bridge, we took off our packs and settled for a lunch at a picnic table near the Cabin and the streaming river. As usual, I savored on my simple paste of Tuna mixed with Mustard spreaded on a piece of bread, while Maya and Barak enjoyed Jam and Milk Jam. Maya noted that we might get short with the bread, and either we cut short our appetite or we buy bread. Me and Barak offered buying more bread (of course) and after checking in the near cabin, we realized that we will have to wait till the next cabin we meet on the way (Campamento Itliano). The backpacks were shouldered and off we went, crossing back the bridge and walking along the river bed till we slowly climbed our way through the sloping forest while the sun shone on us here and there, when it managed to disperse some of the clouds. The view was very magical, the forest vast, green, antique in terms of years and conserved beautifully. We could not stop taking pictures…
Finally, under a low cover of whitish-grayish clouds we came to camp, Campamento Torres, hidden among a sloping medium-thick forest. Before entering the forest, we saw on our left a steep slope made of giant boulders and behind it, the granite walls of the eastern ridge of the Torres. It didn’t look to encouraging, I must say…Entering the forest, gloom dominated us all and the camp site, many colorful tents were already pitched here and there, and while we talked with the park ranger we were looking for camp grounds. We tried to find two camp grounds so we could pitch our tent near Aviran and Shiri's tent, but it was very hard to find. Finally, we managed to find a decent spot that was more or less close to another clear patch that Aviran and Shiri settled. We quickly set up the tent and the sleeping bags and got ready for the ascent. Avrian and Shiri were staring preparing their dinner and so were the other Israelis we met at the start of the walk and met again on the way. I told Aviran we are going to the scouting point over the Torres and Aviran told me they will climb it tomorrow at sunrise. "The weather is not good now, and tomorrow it might get better and I will see it at sunrise…" I told him that I will see and maybe I will go up with them tomorrow morning too, depending on the difficulty of the ascent. We said farewell and left the camping grounds back to the trail where we came from.
At that point the trail headed toward the left side of the slope, penetrating the forest and at a certain point, the path turned to the boulder ascent. That part was a tough one and demanded more time and energy to conquer. The chill wind blew at us with no remorse, the cloudy overcastted skies joined in with all their forces to turn this ascent and scene into a gloomy and depressing climb, a concoction of white-grayish huge boulders and orange round spots marking the appropriate path to walk by. Panting and sweating on top of the dike, the chilling wind whipping at our clothes, we came to the sight that no one can stay indifferent, no matter what.
At the end of the sloping dike in front of us, the turquoise milky waters rippled at the white shore and at the other end, the gray granite massive base of rock planted itself as a huge nail of steel. The gaze instantly went up to the top of the three-peaked fork, their pinnacles shrouded under the cover of the clouds, enhancing their mystery, the mystery of their birth. Except of some whispering of people and the shrieking of the wind, the place was dead quite, as if we were at the hall of a king, barely can address the sight, full of awe and comprehension. The realization was fast and hard stroking: here, under the towering towers, we are just pitiful small humans, even not stones (!) that withstand the winds, ice and rain for thousands of years and still stand erect and proud under still clouds. Maybe we have the brains, but we lack the strength and endurance that those pillars of the earth contain. I was comforted with the idea that at least our short life is fuller and richer then theirs. Their birth a short spasm of rattling earth and shock wave, and then their life is slow of change, of excitement.
We sat there as much as the chill enabled us, chewing some cookies we brought with us, and longed for some hot broth to heat us up in front of such a magnificent sight. We took some pictures of the place, of ourselves and then me and Barak headed to the beach, where we took some more pictures before returning half freezing from the wind. We made our way down slowly (even slower than the way up), watching our steps and our knees (especially me and Maya, both of us suffer from knees problems). We came back to the camp around 8 pm, most of the people were already in sleeping mode (or going to) prior to their ascent early in the morning. We quickly set up a "working kitchen" and due to the cold waters, boiling the water took more time than we planned, and we found ourselves finishing dinner around 11:30 pm…A French dinner, no doubt! At that point I decided that I wont join Aviran and Shiri for another go, as they leave camp around 4 am (which means getting up at 3:30 am…) and it wont leave me too much time to sleep (and the following day was expected to be the hardest and longest of the whole trek). We gladly got into our warming sleeping bag for a night sleep…

Day 2 - Walking and walking and walking… (31/12/05)
The morning was cold and a little damp, with mostly overcastted skies. We quickly kicked up the stove and heated water for tea that accompanied our bread and butter breakfast (actually, milk jam and peach jam) while pondering where are all the guys – certainly they are not up there thus far (around 7:30 am)?? The tents of Arian and Shiri as well as the other Israelis were closed shut and we speculated that they maybe sleeping after waking up so early and walking up the slope. While we were finishing our breakfast, we saw the Israeli company returning and we asked them how it was. Well, turns out that a heavy cloud sat and covered the Torres from top to bottom, right to the lake water…They stayed there from 4 am till 7 am, the clouds shifting from here to there, but almost always shrouding the whole Torres peaks. Suck. While they arranged their breakfast we already wrapped all our equipment and by the time the clock hit 9 am, we were already on our way, the sun shines between shrouds in the already dispersed clouds and blue sky welcomed us into a new and promising beautiful day. We walked briskly all the way back to Campamento Chileno (the one we had breakfast the day before) where we dropped our garbage and continued on, walking the slope up slowly but steady and consistent. We remembered Juan told us about a "shortcut" that would save us some time, and easily we found it. We stopped there to enjoy the amazing view, under clear skies with the lakes in the distance and the topping white peaks. Such magical place that sparked from wherever you looked. We continued on walking, going down the slope, the sun passes above us and soon it was noon and the hunger beckoned us to stop for a while. On a little hill we stopped, overlooking a small quiet blue lake, green bushes, trees and grass surrounded us from all directions and everything was so tranquil and quiet it was hard to believe that there is bustling life not too far from there…
While we walked west, the center ridge was towering us from the right (north) and many streams spilled toward our left, forcing us to cross them on the way forward, all of them without any bridges while some of them with some kind of cables to aid in the crossing. Most of them were not too difficult, but one of them was something I would never forget in my life.
We came to the stream right behind an organized tour of trekkers, Americans. While they crossed at a certain point, I tried to find other places as I saw that the crossing was technically difficult. The stream was at least five meter wide (at the minimum!), flowing in a white rumble over the strewn huge rocks, the latter wet and highly slippery. Not doubt that a glitch could lead to an injury. While I walked up the stream, looking desperately for other easier rocks and spaces combination, I saw that Barak and Maya already crossed to the other side. As I didn’t see any other locations better to cross, I decided to go back to the point of crossing and try my luck. I topped on one of the boulders, the roar of the stream overtopping the shouting of Maya and Barak and I read their mouth movement and followed their finger pointing. I saw the imaginative path, and didn’t like it all - I noticed a risk for a glitch at a certain point, and taking into consideration the weight of my almost 15 kg pack on my back and the 500 USD camera hanging from my chest strap, I was far from being careless. I tightened my backpack as tight as possible and felt it was part of my body (ha, nothing like a good backpack when you really need one!) and only then I started toward the edge of the boulder, pondering how am I gonna cross this damn thing, the roar never stops reminding me of what would happen to me if I do a mistake or land badly on the next boulder…Fear was getting into me, my heart starting to pound nervously and my senses alert as ever, all waiting for the moment of action. I was about to jump, and then held my self back, my mind demand another option. At that point, I looked back at another path I noticed before but put it aside as it looked also too risky. Now, standing there, that option didn’t look too frightening, and quickly I saw how I can do it. Consciously or not, my mind chose the path I felt sure (even if no one crossed there), and with my heart in my mouth, I jumped from one boulder to another and managed to reach the other side, no glitch, no problems. PPHHHEEEWWW!!! I blurted out, and grouped with Maya and Barak, surprised that they did this crossing through THAT path…While we were exchanging the experience of crossing that stream, another elder lady reached the edge of the bank and also pondered how exactly she would cross the stream. Barak immediately jumped to her rescue and helped her land safely on the other side. While continuing walking, we were again amazed that the Chileans didn’t secure this part even though they get paid very well to maintain this UNESCO's Biosphere Reserve…
The path soon started to ascend with the ridge's arms and we soon found ourselves tired from the lengthy walk (we walked already four hours with very few stops). Maya especially felt tired under the heavy pack and Barak helped her by removing several items from her pack and putting it in his pack. We stopped for ten minutes to regain strength and continued on, pushing forward, looking forward to see camp, which was far-far away. Around 1 pm we finally got to Campamento Los Cuernos, which is located near the beach of Lake Nordenskjold.
We were so happy to rest a bit on the little bench and take off the hiking boots! I and Maya went into the cabin to buy bread and some cookies while Barak waited with our stuff outside. At a certain point, I got out to take my camera in order to snap some shots inside the cabin, and while doing so, noticed a trekker sitting beside our backpacks but I didn’t take notice of him. I returned into the cabin, snapped my shots and then we went back to the bench, sitting beside Maya and Barak. As I was savoring on eating some cookies and massaging my foot soles, I heard Maya asking Barak to give her the digital camera so she could browse through the pictures she took in the past day. Barak replied that he doesn’t have the camera and that it is suppose to be in Maya's possession. Maya acknowledged, and started looking for the camera…and kept on looking…and turned her backpack upside down…and moved the bench and looked beneath and around it…and soon, the three of us gripped that either Maya forgot the camera on our last stop (which she quickly verified as impossible) or that it was stolen…It didn’t take us too long to remember the odd trekker that was sitting beside our stuff (and my own unguarded camera!) and suddenly the option that he might have a connection with the "mysterious" disappearance of the camera looked more and more logical. Barak went to the beach to look for him while reality sank slowly into Maya's conscious and her mood became gloomy and sad. Around that time, Aviran and Shiri came, and while they sat and made themselves a quick lunch, we told them about what happened. They tried to encourage Maya, but that obviously didn’t help much to lift Maya's spirit, as she felt responsible for the camera – The fact that it was Barak's father camera only made her feel worse. Barak returned from the beach, hopeless, as he saw that guy sitting with his friend on the beach and talking. Obviously, he could not do anything or accuse them, as he even didn’t see it happen. Maya, in a desperate effort, asked me to come with her and to talk with the guys (most probably Chileans), and maybe convince them to return the camera. While we walked to the beach I told Maya not to count on it, as if they were such bastards to steal another tourist's camera, I dare say they would hand it back just because we ask them. But even so, I walked with her and soon we saw them, sitting among the white stones that were strewn on the rocky beach. The suspect didn’t conversed the English and even though I talked with my basic Spanish, his friend knew enough English that we could understand from them they don’t have a clue as to what happen to the camera and that they never saw it in their life. Examining them and their reactions, I looked for signs that would hint the edge of a lie, but I didn’t manage to see any of it. Their reactions were genuinely naïve and innocent. Where they?, I asked my self after we left the place, or maybe they acted so well? Or maybe somebody else took the camera…? But who?? I remember strongly that I thought at those moments that the only way Maya can get her camera back is a display of great pain, such as a genuine great crying, that would work its own way to untie the tight and stiff knot in that man's heart that would move him against the sense of giving the camera back to its legal owner…
Coming back to the bench and to our stuff, we sat and tried to think what to do next – we still had 2-3 hours of hike ahead of us, and time past fast as the sun already moved to the other half of the sky, its light starting to be warmer and warmer by the minute. We decided to write a note in Spanish and English asking people that saw the camera or the person that stole it to return it to the cabin or to contact Maya and Barak through their Email address. While Barak went to post it in the cabin, it finally downed on Maya that the camera was lost and with it, all her 200 photos of landscape, fauna and flora from the Fitzroy and from this park. At that point she broke down and cried, there, at the entrance of the cabin, visible and disregarding the people that came in and out of the cabin. The pain of the loss was so visible and eminent I could feel the pain pinch almost every person in that courtyard, most buried his/her head in discomfort and in total hopelessness in light of what happened. Suddenly I noticed that also the Chilean was standing near the entrance to the cabin, oblivious to the drama that was happening just a meter or two from him, his whole being is on another plant. Looking at him, I lead my self to believe that he has nothing to do with this event, as I could not believe a guilty man can ignore such a powerful emotional moment, not even looking or paying any attention to it. At that point, I didn’t take into consideration that a man who can act convincingly and look innocent can also act as if this case has nothing to do with him…
The dramatic breakdown lasted only five minutes and with encouraging words we help each other with the packs and with heavy hearts we returned to the issue on the present agenda: how we continue from here? I went to the cabin to the suspect's friend standing there, and reluctantly, asked him where is the continuation of the path to Campamento Italiano, and surprisingly, he jumped out of his shoes to help and guide me to the head trail. At that, my senses sprang back and I felt that a not-too-clean conscious sprang him out to help us. My suspicion returned with full force and when I walked behind him I eyed him, while he blabbered about this and that. Maya and Barak were walking behind me with some distance and on the way I saw the suspect finishing pitching his tent and arrange his stuff. Our gazes crossed and my cold eyes with my windy acknowledgment didn’t left any room to understand that whatever happened, I still had a bad feeling about him. As we already reach the rim of the camp, I heard shouts and loud talks. I told the guy to stop short and walked fast back, thinking what the hell happened now…And to my surprise, I heard Shiri and Aviran talking loud about "finding the camera", and soon I met radiating Maya and Barak, their digital camera in their hand, joy and relief in their eyes. Superb! What happen?? I asked and soon I understand that the suspect (which from now on would be called, the thief) "suddenly" saw that he "mistakenly" took the camera with his laundry…Oh, what a miserable mistake, isn’t it?? I said sarcastically, thinking that this guy deserves something worse than the cold feedback he got from us. But, it didn’t matter a bit, as the relief was so overwhelming, we trotted without even looking back, so happy that our trek got out of a surprisingly sharp and nasty curve – no need to explain the effect that steal would have on the rest of the trek and our enjoyment. But, as I always like to say, everything happens for the best, as now the trek's difficulties were seen under different light and overall we were uplifted.
While our spirit was close to heaven, we walked beside the lovely and deserted beach of lake Nordenskjold, and then started the next up hill scramble to the next shoulder, and from there, we could see the highest ridge in the park, El Paine Grande. As the sun slowly went down, we continued down toward what was the mouth of the French Valley (Valle del Frances), with the ridges of Paine Grande on one side and Los Cuernos on the other. We continued walking among the green bush and trees, with a roaring river that can be heard clearly and easily over the silence of that heavenly place. Finally, after 11 hours of hike over hills and across streams and one memorable zig-zag of depression-relief we came to Campamento Italiano. The camp was, as expected, packed full with backpackers, most of them already deep into cooking and preparing dinner. We were dead tired, but we had to find a place to pitch a tent, and it take us some time till we finally agreed on a location. After rearranging, we quickly set up our meal (ready-made mashed potatoes) and we were set for sleep half an hour before midnight, the start of 2006, which none of us knew what it hold for us: the three of us didn’t know what we are gonna do when we go back home. But we didn’t think about the future but merely on the present. At midnight, while we could hear people cried "Happy New Year!" we switch the Self-timer on our cameras and snapped some pictures, and almost immediately went to sleep similarly to the rest of the camp…

Day 3 - The French Valley
The next day we had a hard time to wake up, with sore muscles mostly. After a quick and light breakfast we took our small backpack and went venturing heading north toward the scouting point, some five and a half kilometers away. We started the walk from the camp, which was situated on the forested eastern bank of the river, Rio Frances, and made our way along its ascending bank, passing close to the crashing cascade of the flowing river and then up to the shoulder that connected one ridge with another. From there we had a splendid view over Paine Grande and its massive, all covered with thick layer of snow. In the little time we spent at that point we were lucky enough to see some thunderous ice crashes (not as grandiose as the Perito Moreno glacier, but even so, impressive).
While we were enjoying the sight of the crashing ice, we saw a young, thin and tall Israeli marches with good pace, simple jeans on his lower part and sandals. The fact that it was cold didn’t matter to him very much. He was very glad to meet Israelis again, after so much time of traveling in the company of mostly foreigners, and told us he was on his last days of the famous circle. As we walked slowly, he quickly continued on, saying farewell.
We continued on, the path takes us through a thick and cold forest, up and down small slopes. We were alone and the silence was dominative. We got to Campamento Britanico quite fast and stop there for a short refreshment of water and some cookies. We were not surprised to see so little tents pitched there, as it was a place not many visit and even less, make camp. At the point we sat we could see the continuation of the river between the high ridges on both of its sides, and in the not too far distance, a third ridge that close and block the valley. From the camp we had an additional hour to reach the scouting point.
We continued on walking for 10 minutes when we found ourselves approaching a rising little hill, which on top of it was a heap of large boulders the color of brown, and on one of them was hand-sprayed "Mirador", scout point in Spanish. We were dumb struck and surprised to find it so close to the camp, and we looked around to see if the path continues on (and indeed found a little path blocked with a log of wood). Puzzled, we asked some elderly trekkers that sat near the base of the boulders heap where is the scouting point. They told us that the "real" scouting point is an hour and a bit from here, and if we want, we can bypass the small blockade on the path and continue with it. "Climb the little ravine until you reach a plateau-like area, and from there continue hard left and soon you will see the slope reaching high to a pass – that’s the scouting point over the south Torres." We asked him how difficult it is, and he chuckled and said that for him it is too much, but for us it won't be too difficult.
As Maya felt her knees quite bad, she passed this climbing and after assuring us she doesn’t have any problem waiting in the sun and enjoying the scenery. And the scenery was impeccable: the French Valley was located between the snowy western ridge of Grand Paine and the exposed jagged eastern ridge that connected eventually with the Torres spikes north east from our location. The distant lakes sparkled in the morning sun and the green beckoned us from a far with its attractive vivid green color. The weather was splendid.
We arranged ourselves with the minimal stuff and water we needed, bypassed the barrier and got on our way up the sloping ravine. The little stream that drained into the Rio del Frances hummed while we tackled the medium-level slope and in 20 minutes we arrived to a marshy-water-soaked plain, with large rocks strewn here and there. We wound our way here and there, trying not to sink too much into the drench grass. We saw a couple of Europeans making their way up the marshes toward the already evident high shoulder, far away (and it turned out that it was even farther than we even guessed!). Only while we crossed the marshes, we grasped that after crossing the marshes we had to start with a long slope, all boulder-covered and not too inviting. We continued on plodding forward and finally made it to the boulder area.
The area was all covered with varied sizes of boulders, from tiny bits to a mini-minor size rock, most of them white and bright under the mid day sun. We continued on, passing the woman that sat on a rock and, evidently, decided not to continue on with the slope that started to pitch upward – we could see her boyfriend reaching already the upper part and not too far from the end (or what we THOUGHT was the end…). Looking at the map, I could see that this shoulder that we pointed our mind and bodies to, was in between two prominent jutting peaks, the southern one is Espalda, a 2500 MASL finger and the northern one is Fortaleza, similar in height. Soon we noticed a long and jumpy figure moves and meet with the European, apparently, talking with him – we recognized the figure as the Israeli guy we saw before. Soon, we met him, and as it was a funny conversation, here is the way it went, more or less, as far as I can remember:
"Listen, do you know where is the French Valley or something like that??" [The Israeli asked]. "I was like climbing half of the damn mountain over there" pointing toward the pass he came from and continue "and that slope was a bitch! And when I was there, I didn’t see anything…just more damn rocks! Where is that damn French Valley??" Me and Barak look at each other and then I replied:
"You ARE in the French Valley," and then I showed him with my hands about all the surrounding mountrain ranges and rocks "ALL THIS is the French Valley."
"No, it cant be, man. Juan showed me pictures from the French Valley: two blue lakes, snowy mountains, all beautiful. What is THIS shit?"
and with the "This" he pointed toward the ground. Hmm, I and Barak looked at each other, on the verge of bursting with laughter and together we showed the guy the peaks, the two far lagoons (OUTSIDE the valley) and the rest of the description. He looked at it, puzzeled, and then continued: "I don’t know, man, I am telling ya, he showed me an amazing place…If this is the French Valley, then it is shit! My friend was so smart staying sleeping in the tent, I should have listened to him…" and with that, he parted from us, wishing us luck climbing that "bitch slope" and going down, jumping from one rock to another. We shrugged and continue on with the slope, some half an hour more, a climb that we started to rethink if it was that smart to start with it from the start (especially when we saw how much we walked and climbed…The Mirador was not visible from where we were standing, but we knew Maya was waiting there, for more than 2 hours now…As we felt we didn’t have too much left, we decided to push it fast so we could be down as soon as possible. Looking around us while resting, one could not admire the nature we were in the midst of. Mountain ranges, far away lagoons, barren and rough land with no path or marking, nothing. Like nobody was walking here (and believe me, finding this kind of places in this park without so many tourists is not that easy). At a certain point we saw the European returns from his experience, half slides on an ice field that covered part of a sloping valley. Once we met with him, he told us that we have something like 20 minutes of hike up till we get to the part that it is possible to notice the Torres. "There is no need to continue on, in my opinion, as it doesn’t lead you to a better view…" We thanked him and kept on walking, happier that we gonna see the end of this long and rough slope. Finally, as we neared the ice field, we could already notice one of the Torres, partially obscured by the low clouds that covered that area permanently for the last two hours we climbed. At that point we noticed somebody was climbing behind us. Barak asked me if it is not Avirna, but I remembered Aviran has a green fleece and not a red one, and I told him that I don’t think so. Even so, the figure advanced with a blazing pace, bypassing rocks and boulders and tackling the slope like it was a kid's game. Finally, after we crossed the ice field Barak told me it is Aviran, and then I noticed he was not wearing his fleece (and how could he, when exerting so much energy…). We waved toward him and he waved back, not stopping for even a second. Amazing!
At a certain point we noticed the distant pass, the Torres tower prominently above it, the wind whipping at us. It was an impressive sight. We decided to stop at that point – enough is enough. From both sides of us, the peaks of Fortaleza and Espalda were towering us and with continuation of Espalda ride, we could see three fingers protrude, and we pondered if those are the Torres, from the backside. I took out the map and tried to figure out where we were - I managed tp positioned ourselves couple of hundred meters from the pass, and I guessed that indeed what we saw were the Torres. While we took out our cameras and start snapping pictures here and there, we saw Aviran continue to walk up the slope, not knowing that it was for vain, as he would need to cross a little ravine and then go up another slope and etc. till he will eventually reach the pass. We waved and shouted, but the guy didn’t hear us as he was listening to music. Eventually, he stopped for a minute and we manage to draw his attention. After a short-loud conversation with great echoes, he came down to us. He told us that he and Shiri saw Maya waiting at the scouting point, and as Shiri joined Maya for rest, Aviran went up the slope (and thus we were relieved that at least Maya was not waiting for us alone…). We took pictures together and talked, talking about this and that and admiring the amazing wild landscape that surrounded us from all directions, so alone and desolate not only from the rest of the world, but even from the busy but isolated national park that lay in the distance.
We started to get down, Aviran quickly opened the gap by sliding on his ass on the ice field slope, shouting and enjoying it (Aviran still didn’t visit Villarica volcano…). I and Barak slides also on our asses, but quickly changed our mind. First, it was freezing my ass really good, and also burning my bare hands when I tried to slow down. Second, as I went down the slope, trying to slow the rate of descend, I found myself sliding to the side of the valley, where a line of exposed boulders lined up the whole slope. Without any other choice, still shouting of joy, trying to stop with my bare hands with little success, I crashed into the rocks, hitting the side of my ass onto couple of rocks. I was still laughing when I raised my self, half limping and continued sliding the rest of the way on my two legs…it was quite funny. Even though it was fun, we were happy to leave the ice field back to the steady and tough rumble of rocks, and found a small path that lead the way down to the marshes. There we lost the way we went up, and so got to the ledge at not the previous place we came through. At that area large boulders (some of them the height of 2 meters and more) where shrouded by overgrowing bush and small trees, and it was hard to see the gaps between the granite rocks. Barak leading the way, we climb down those massive rocks, in one point, I can still remember myself kneeling on an edge of rock, maybe 2 cm in width, which was formed due to a crack of a huge boulder. It was 2 and a half meter high from the ground, on one side nothing but air, on the other, the gaping hole of the cracked rock, also some 1 and half meter down. My life in my mouth, I managed to half crawl, half walk down the spiny granite edge till I was low enough to jump down back to mother earth. Eventually, we came back to the point where this area connected with the ravine and soon we were going down on familiar grounds. While we went down, even when we were in the boulder area, we saw people doing their way up, those already advanced just said "hey!" or "hello" but those that we met close to the start of the trail also had some questions of how much more they have and if it is worth it. Both I and Barak agreed that it was not worth the intense climb we had to go through, but we didn’t regret going up there (though we would not have done that if we knew what to expect).
We found Maya in the company of Aviran, Shiri and the other Israelis we saw on the way and talk a bit before we moved back to the camp. Already we decided we are going to change plans and instead of going the same day to the next camp we will stay an additional night and the next day we will move directly to the end of the trek.
Reaching camp, we hurried to make dinner (I was hungry and in my hunger I burst out in anger…something I am not proud of…) and talked while the food was being cooked, and soon we went to sleep, tired from the long day we have been through…

Day 4 – Returning to Puerto Natales
We had a tight schedule that day – we had to catch the 12 PM ferry back to Pudeto and from there catch the bus back to Puerto Natales. We woke up a bit later than we expected and left camp only around 9:20, with 2 hours and a bit to walk (we estimated that we would need almost two hours to cover the distance). That morning the skies were grey from the overcastted clouds, and cold as a consequence. We started a good pace, tired as we were, as we didn’t like to miss the ferry and wait for the 6:30 PM ferry…
On the way we passed two lakes, one of them Lago Skottsberg, with superb reflections of the mountain ranges and the forested areas surrounding it…amazing!
We kept on walking, going up and down hills, pacing even faster, until we finally reached camp around 11:30 only to grip that the ferry leaves only around 12:30. Well, more than we wanted but nonetheless, better than to be late by an hour! Barak and I went to the jetty to look for the place where you can purchase the ticket (as I understand from the park ranger we met in the ranger's cabin) but we found the jetty empty for only an enormous amount of backpacks (Barak and I thought how careless it is to leave it like this, especially after what we've been through...). In any case, suddenly we saw Maya coming back to us, as she went in a different way and call us to come and stay in the warm kitchen cabin. And who do you think we found there?? Of course, Aviran and Shiri!
Turns out, after coming back to the previous camp, they continue walking to this camp, slept the night and the following morning Aviran marched, alone, to see the Grey Glacier (that we decided to pass) and manage to come back in time to catch the ferry...
When the ferry finally came, a long line quickly formed and soon, the ferry backed up and cruised across Lake Pehoe while we enjoyed the famous landscape scenery of Torres del Paine. When we reached our destination, we walked five minutes more to reach the bus. For our relief, we didn’t wait there too long, and soon we were bumping on the road, tired and happy to get soon to Puerto Natales, for a good hot shower and a good REAL meal. Along the way I went into a deep doze for an hour and at the end we reached Puerto Natales after 4 hours of ride...And there was nothing like coming back to the hostel, with the same room already reserved beforehand and have a good shower!
Well, actually it didn’t happen – soon after Maya took a shower (and also half of the bus, as half of it were Israelis who were in San Jose hostel) there were no hot water! I complained and asked for a solution with the senora and on the way back I found a vacant room, that somebody left it in a mess (and also one Source sandal and an expensive after shave...). Curious, I checked to see if there were any warm water – Yes there were!! I returned quickly and asked Barak if he wants to go for it, but he declined, and preferred our own. Well. In that case, I am going! I told him and quickly already was back in the room showering...no need to say, this was one good shower!
Ha, so good to be back in civilization...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Patagonia VII: On Route 40 all the way to the Chilean far south

The "W circuit" (adapted from www.turistel.cl)


Going back to El Calafate, we moved to Puerto Natales through the Patagonian ranges and prepared for the most famous and notorious of Patagonia’s treks, the Torres del Paine trek.

Going back to El Calafate
Morning. We got up early, the streets of El Chalten dark and spotted with the Tungsten warm lighting, the wind softly blowing and taking some more of the little warm we had. The bus was due to depart at 6:30 am and we got there ahead of time, and waited in silence in the minibus that was filling quickly with other backpackers. I forgot to mention this note earlier, but only couple of hours after we returned from the trek, heavy clouds shrouded the Fitzroy pinnacle and soon rain was pouring down, closing the window of beautiful weather for who knows how much time. We were lucky, very lucky!
The clouds were still there, overcastting and grey, silencing and depressing any joyful talk. The bus soon departed and returned the same way it came, passing again through the famous Route 40 and stopping at the little farm near the river, with the curios lama and the indifferent cow…Even so, this ride was still definitely different from the one we came with to El Chalten, due to an expected rendezvous in the midst of nowhere.
We were riding fast and hard the rough dirt road, the sky opened a bit for the great blue, when I suddenly saw that a bus from the same company, riding in the opposite direction (to El Chalten) came straight toward us in a collision course. What the hell?! I was intrigued and soon I saw the bus stopping short in front of our bus that also slowed down to a stop (of course…). The parking break was pulled into action in the-all-too-familiar whistle and the door opened only to let the other bus driver board the short steps and hand something to one very grateful tourist. A cardigan! I could only guess that she forgot it in El Calafate’s bus office and they returned it to her…The drivers took advantage of this rendezvous to drink mate together and I took advantage and boarded down to capture this head-to-head similar buses meeting in the middle of nowhere…Soon, other passengers took notice of my wandering and also went down, some taking pictures, some just stretching their limbs and enjoying the cool and fresh air outside the close bus. Soon the bus returned to ride the dusty road and finally we came back to El Calafate.
This time, nobody waited for us, or for others. Before going out of the terminal, we purchased already tickets for the next day's bus to Puerto Natales, Chile. After that we took our stuff outside and me and Barak looked for a taxi, while Maya went to buy some groceries for lunch. While looking for taxis, I have felt being dismissed of by the taxi drivers, with no patience and bad manners, saying with their tone and body language “we don’t need you, if you wont take the fare, somebody else will”, which upset and enraged me. At the end we took a taxi, but I was quite irritated and it took out a lot of my spirit that morning.
Coming back to America del Sur, we were welcomed with smiles and were quickly checked in with our luggage. Maya prepared Pasta with her famous Mixta sauce, and later we split – I went to the internet for emails and blog, while the two of them went horseback riding in the area.
When I came back after several hours, the two were well deep into a TAKI card game with no other than Mor and Tania, which stayed in the same hostel! We had some nice talk and also tasty mousse (if I remember correctly) before I went back to the centre for some dinner (Barak and Maya were not hungry and I didn’t press them to join me – I had my book in any case…).

Puerto Natales and the rush of preparations
The next day, Thursday the 29th, we woke up early (again…) and after a nice breakfast we put all our stuff in the pre-ordered taxi and rushed to the bus terminal, boarding the 8:30 AM bus which was packed with Israelis (and no wonder, at the high peak of tourism in the area). The five hour ride passed slowly, even though being very scenic with the Andes spikes in the background and the plains along the route 40 were vast and full with scattering-fleeting sheep, dispersing while the bus rushed through the dirt/asphalt road, south as can be. At a certain point we came to a small coal-mining town near the border with Chile called Rio Turbio. You could feel the remoteness of such a town, almost at the end of the world. Shortly after passing through town we came to the border crossing with Chile, and after stamping, we boarded the bus again (while seeing a cute Labrador sniffs people bags for drugs) and headed for the Chilean border, and then, Puerto Natales!
Grey clouds welcomed us when we came with the bus into town, along the beautiful port. Going down to the sidewalk, enormous amount of people gathered outside the bus company’s offices, many are travelers but many others, hostels owners and staff, pushing fliers and working up their persuasive talk. Even though it makes life easier to find an hostel, it is also VERY annoying when you rush to find and retrieve your pack and those people, with no patience whatsoever, push their interests before you can even grip the who, what and how of the new place. As I had my own recommendation in my email, we all walked to the nearest internet and I retrieved the phone numbers. Calling all these hostels, I quickly were reminded that we are on Chilean soil, with Chilean currency and cost of living – all hostels charged a minimum of 8 dollars per night, dormitorio, shared bathrooms. Damn...At the end, we confided to one flier and made our way according to the Lonely’s Planet map of Puerto Natales, when a shrewd-looking guy we already saw outside the bus company’s office approached us with fliers and Hebrew of a 2nd grader. I didn't like him from start, but even so I kept silent and my ears open and listened to what he had to offer. Indeed, it was the lowest offer one can get, period. It was packed with Israelis. Maya, Barak and me looked at each other and nodded, following him while he blabbered on about this and that in Spanish and occasionally with his low grade Hebrew...A half man size yellow Hebrew sign written was stationed outside the house, which was one of a line of houses. It reminded me of Valparaiso style of building (lacking the vivid colors), as I can only guess that it is the custom of building in old Chilean port cities. Prior to the Torres del Paine boom, Puerto Natales was a fishing city that declined into almost poverty due to over fishing and loss of work. As I have sensed, the towns is tourist oriented and that's what enable them to pass the difficult months of winter, when less tourists come to visit and fishing is not at best.
Coming to the Jose-Maria hostel, we quickly comprehend we came to a “mass stocking” hostel, i.e., many rooms, oriented in a one long and not too clean corridor. In the rooms, which cost 6 USD per night (the cheapest ever), we were surprised to find comfortable beds, TV and the best, a private bathroom...Now, how can one resist to such an offering?! We succumb to the Israeli mess and noise and handed over the money for one night. At that point Maya declared/suggested me make preparations to depat for the trek ASAP, meaning, the next day's morning. Barak didn't mind, and neither do I so after re-arranging, we went outside again to find some food. Near the entrance, we met with who than Aviran and Shiri, both smiling and symphatic as usual. They told us they are going to depart the next day to the Torres del Paine trek, the W circuit, and were happy to hear that we plan the same. They gave us key information about were and how to arrange bus tickets and equipment (i.e., Go to Juan). We parted and went outside a dribble of rain welcome us from a cloudy overcastted skies. Setting aside stomach issues, we went first to see we have a bus the next day. We managed to find the agency where Juan, the manager, arranges his “empire”. And indeed, he built some empire – in the little agency he put some PCs with slower than you can imagine internet, a big topo map of the Torres del Paine, and stocks of sleeping bags, tents and the like up to the ceiling. With Hebrew which would not ashame most foriegners coming to Israel, he talked fluently and explained us shortly that everything can be arranged through him: Bus tickets, sleeping bag (no 3-person tents, though), gas for the stove and so on. He urged us to find tent in other agencies and then come back for a brief explanation about the different routes to visit the park. We went to one agency and they didn't have any, so went to another and also they didn't have any 3 person tent to rent, all were on field. Damn, we should have thought about that (not that we had anything to do against that...). We stumbled by mistake into one shop which offered good equipment for high price, but we were so glad to have a 3-person tent we didn't care too much about the price. Maya and Barak also rented sleeping bags and mattresses as it was convenient and not pricier than Juan’s offers. We took all our stuff and went back to the hostel to drop them before going back to Juan’s place for bus tickets, and on the way we met again with Aviran and Shiri, informing them that we will go on the same bus as they go to the park. They were happy, and with that we left them to wonder in town and we hurried back to the hostel – we had a lot of things to do before we could close for the day!
Maybe 5 minutes have passed till we hurriedly went back into the streets in order to buy the bus tickets for the next day and to have a brief introduction about the possible touring options we had in the park. Juan was springy and very experienced, asking us how much time we have and detailing us the recommended route.
Most people visit Torres del Paine National Park by either hiking the 7 day circuit trek or by hiking the shorter "W circuit", "only" 4-5 days. The full circuit, which skirts the main ridges in the park: Cerro Torres, Paine Grande and Cuerno is regarded as demand full as you need to carry food provisions for a week without mentioning warm clothing, camping equipment and the like. The "W circuit", on the other hand, contains the "juicier" parts of the park with less time invested (and of course also less effort). Even if I had more time, I would have chosen the sorter version: already I comprehended that very long walks is not for me. As Maya and Barak were not rich with time, the longer version was not even considered, ever. Usually, the W requires between 4-5 days, depends on fitness and Juan routed the whole tour in 4 days, walking in average 10 hours a day, with an exceptional day demanding a 25 km-long leg. We should have rethought the whole route and add an additional day, but Juan confidence and non-chalant explanation took us easily.
It took us no more than five minutes to see that Juan acted and talked like a typical Israeli, and not surprising, after years of dealing with Macho, non-suckers (FRAYERIM), 100% self assured Israelis. It was a sad moment, to see how Juan incorporated the bad habits of the Israelis and so well implemented it on uncommon Israeli travelers like the three of us. This observation was evident when Barak asked Juan if it is possible to sleep in a camp that charges a fee for the usage of the camping ground and utilities and by doing so, shortening the longest leg by a few km. Juan looked at him surprised, certainly not ready for such an uncommon suggestion, an outrages one. Israeli that wants to pay when he doesn’t have to?! He commented by saying, "but why when you don’t have to? Be an Israeli and Walk several km more and sleep for free." He replied, musing. No need to explain the extent of pity I felt over this man, consumed by the "I am not a sucker" culture. Even though I am and was not a fan of giving cash to other persons, it was a good idea as it spread the km`s we had to walk more equally among the four days and in the worst case, we could have planned on 5 days. But, instead of doing so, we stuck with the common timeline and later we regret not doing opposite. We bought the bus tickets and also a gas canister so we would have two full ones to cover the four days. On our way back we stopped at several supermarkets and bought food provisions for the next days, as usual, sticking to tradition with Pasta and Mash potatoes as the mains. Finally, we found the time to eat lunch/dinner. Maya spotted a Pizza place but the prices were outrageous and me and barak managed to convince Maya to try in a local place that an Hebrew sign stated that this a real "bargain" and the food is "excellent!". Well…maybe they are used to eat shit, but the three of us don’t. Maya and Barak could not eat the Milanesa de Carne (Beef Schnitzel) and the fried potatoes were awful. I found the food not good, but I managed my self. Later we all bought cookies to take out the grease and unpleasant taste of the bad food. Being the ones to drag her to that lousy restaurant, we felt a bit bad about it and assured her that once we came back from the Torres del Paine trek, she will have her pick, wherever she wants.
Later we went to buy some last things and also went to send emails to people at home, so now no one will be worried if we don’t contact in the next few days.
As Jose-Maria hostel is an Israeli hostel, an ISRAELIYADA hostel at that, the noise was dominant and the packed Israelis were seen everywhere. Even so, I was optimistic that we gonna sleep once our packs will be ready, only I was wrong. Around half an hour into my sleep, hammering on the door woke me up, accompanied by loud shouts of some guys, drunk/on high most probably. This pack of idiots tried to open the door with their key, and once that didn’t work, they tried to force it open. Lucky for us, I managed to drag my brains out of the sleep I was in and shout at them they are knocking on the wrong god damn door, and after roaring laughter and giggling, they moved on leaving behind some peace and quiet. Thank god! Just in case, I have took my ear plugs and stuff them deep into my ears, hoping for the best. We all needed sleep, as the next days were expected to be not easy. And while sleep took me slowly into the comfort darkness, I already saw visions of the trek and of nature…